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By Blue Flute

I want to introduce you to the poet you know as Blue Flute.  He has written an article for us today comparing Japanese and Chinese poetic forms and discussing how these can be adapted into English.

Here’s his article:

Many people when reading or writing modern haikutanka, or micropoetry focus on the written form—that is, it being in three lines and 17-syllables in the case of the haiku or five lines and 31-syllables in the case of the tanka. While the written form and rhythm is certainly important, equally important is the visual nature of the poetry and lack of abstract language when compared to Western poetic tradition. The use of tangible images to symbolize abstract ideas rather than stating the abstract idea directly is common in both Japanese and Chinese poetry.

Until the fourth century A.D., Japan had no writing system of its own. Around the time, it started making cultural connections with China and imported Chinese characters to write the Japanese language. However, the grammar of Japanese is vastly different than that of Chinese, so over some hundreds of years, a native alphabet evolved to express different grammatical endings while still using Chinese characters as the root of words.

An analogy would be if English had no alphabet and you tried to use Chinese characters to express English, then later an alphabet evolved to express the different tenses. For example, consider “discover,” “discovered,” and “discovering.” The Chinese word for “discover” is發現. To express the different tenses in English grammar, we could write “發現” and pronounce it “discover,” “發現ed” and pronounce it “discovered,” and “發現ing” and pronounce it “discovering.” This is very much like how Japanese uses Chinese characters.

The point of that little digression is to show that while Japanese and Chinese are two different languages, the Japanese language has borrowed much from Chinese—in particular, it’s visual nature since Chinese characters are basically pictures representing ideas. Partly because of the similarity of the written languages, classical Chinese poetry, especially during the Tang period, became very popular in Japan, influencing thetanka form and the derivative haiku form.

tanka is a five-line poem following a syllable pattern of 5/7/5/7/7. It usually consists of two contrasting or related images and a pivot on the second or third line. For example, the first three lines will say one thing and then the next two lines will say something related to that. Take this poem for instance:

Translation Original Japanese Pronunciation
By Kakinomoto no Hitomaru 柿本の人麻呂 Kakinomoto no Hitomaru
On a mountain slope あしびきの Ashi-biki no
The copper pheasant’s tail 山鳥の尾の Yama-dori no o no
Just flows and flows— しだり尾の Shidari-o no
So long, like this night ながながし夜を Naga-nagashi yo wo
If I’m to sleep alone ひとりかも寝む Hitori kamo nen

The first three lines express one concept through a visual image—the long tail of the copper pheasant. The second two lines express the related concept of how long the night since he is sleeping alone. Note that the poet does not directly express his longing or loneliness, but clearly implies it instead through tangible images.

The haiku basically just follows the 5/7/5 syllable pattern of the tanka’s first three lines and ignores the last two lines. The idea is to express a single image as powerfully as possible, usually giving a natural backdrop as well for added meaning. Take this one by Sogi, for instance:

Translation Original Japanese Pronunciation
To grow old in the world 世にふるも Yo ni furu mo
Is like taking shelter さらに時雨の Sara ni shigure no
In a winter storm 宿りかな Yadori kana

The first line sets the concept of growing old in the world while the second two lines gives the single image of taking shelter in a winter storm. It combines seasonal and natural symbolism via “winter storm,” reinforcing the idea that life is difficult and fleeting.

As Chinese has limited grammar and is completely written in images, it is even more visual than Japanese. Basho was influenced heavily by Chinese poetry and made many allusions to it in his haiku. Roughly and loosely speaking, you can think of each five-character line in a classical Chinese poem as equivalent to a haiku in terms of conveying a single image and each seven-character line as equivalent to a tanka in conveying two related images. Take this 5-character poem by Li Bai, “Under the Moon, Drinking Alone.”

Translation Chinese Pronunciation
Li Bai 李白 Lǐ bái
Under the Moon, Drinking Alone 月下獨酌 Yuè xià dú zhuó
Among the flowers 花間 Huā jiān
a jug of wine 一壺酒 yī hú jiǔ,
Drinking alone 獨酌 Dú zhuó
with no one close 無相親 wū xiāng qīn;
Raising a glass 舉杯 Jǔ bēi
inviting the shining moon 邀明月 yāo míng yuè,
My shadow facing 對影 Duì yǐng
makes the three of us 成三人 chéng sān rén.
Still the moon 月既 Yuè jì
cannot understand our drinking 不解飲 bù jiě yǐn,
And only a shadow 影徒 Yǐng tú
follows my body 隨我身 suí wǒ shēn;
Fleeting companions: 暫伴 Zàn bàn
I take the shadow and moon 月將影 yuè jiāng yǐng,
Having fun 行樂 Xíng lè
we strive for spring 須及春 xū jí chūn.
I sing 我歌 Wǒ gē
the moon lingers 月徘徊 yuè pái huái,
I dance 我舞 Wǒ wǔ
my shadow twirls 影零亂 yǐng líng luàn;
In sober times 醒時 Xǐng shí
we’re having fun together 同交歡 tóng jiāo huān,
After we’re drunk 醉後 Zuì hòu
we part our ways 各分散 gè fēn sàn.
Always connected, 永結 Yǒng jié
no concerns, we wander and roam 無情遊 wú qíng yóu,
Of our time together, 相期 Xiāng qī
just the distant clouds can speak 邈雲漢 miǎo yún hàn.

I’ve broken each line into a 2/3 character set to match the pronunciation and meaning cluster of the characters. Notice how each line forms a single striking visual image and the poem basically flows from one image to another related image, adding to a combined meaning.


Not worrying about the written form too much, try to write a poem using mainly tangible images to convey your thoughts, using as little abstract vocabulary as possible. If you find it difficult, focus on a single image and try to convey a lot of meaning in as small a space as you can. If you are feeling adventurous, try stringing together a long poem consisting of a slideshow of images that work together to tell a story.